Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Happiness is...a good book.

So sorry I've been absent. I'm going to blame it on the turkey coma. Three times over. (I love leftovers!) If the turkey excuse doesn't work for you we can try the hours of shopping, hanging out with my mom and sister, being hugged by my amazing grandpa or entertaining the two cutest little nephews in the entire world.  Oh yeah, and reading!

I've been on a bit of a dry spell in the reading department. Nothing's really floated my boat lately. But the last week or so I kind of hit the jackpot.  Here's a sampling:

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
Author: Laura Hillenbrand
Pages: 473
Age Range: Adult
Published: 2010
Genre: Biography
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: *****
Rating: PG-13 possibly R (there are a few instances of quoted strong language including an f-bomb or two, violence, cruelty, graphic descriptions, intense situations and so forth)

Louis Zamperini began life with a rough start full of thievery and fighting despite loving and supportive Italian immigrant parents. In his teen years his brother helped him focus his efforts on running and he became a record breaker and an Olympic hopeful. His dreams were dashed by the onset of WWII and he was forced to give up thoughts of running in exchange for gunning in a B-24 bomber.

The war time exploits are enough to make a gripping movie; near misses, miraculous escapes, a plane riddled with holes and running on empty that makes it back to base with no men lost and more. Then on a rescue mission the plane crashes.  All but 3 men are killed and after a harrowing 47-day existence at sea in an emergency raft surrounded by man-eating sharks only Zamperini and Russell Phillips remain. And then on top of that, he escapes the sea only to be captured by the Japanese and subjected to inhumane cruelties and degradations that are unfathomable.

When he returns home he obviously has some demons to work through and eventually does so (after some stints with the bottle, all encompassing thoughts of revenge) with the help of a remembered promise to God.

Most of my knowledge of WWII is surrounding the events in Europe so it was an eye-opening experience to read about the goings on in the Pacific, especially since that's where my grandfather served. And Hillenbrand is an amazing writer. She weaves the narration, historical background, facts and figures together seamlessly to re-create the story and keep you riveted from page one. 

If you have any interest in history, the WWII era, biographies, Japan, running, sharks, airplanes or anything at all really, I highly recommend this book.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Pages: 369
Age Range: Adult
Published: 2009
Genre: Biography
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: *****
Rating: PG-13 (some violence, intense and graphic descriptions and some strong language)

In the 1940s a black woman went into Johns Hopkins for cancer treatment. Before she died they harvested some of her uterin cells. Those cells had an uncanny ability to multiply and live forever, something that had never been discovered before and would prove immensely useful to science. Her cells have gone on to be studied for cancer cures, immunizations and a million other things but her family was never told about it until many years later when they found out accidentally. Being from poor black ancestry there was a lot they didn't understand, only that some part of their mother was still alive and being used for medical tests. They became wary of doctors, hospitals and anyone claming to be a scientist. 

The writer had first heard Lacks' name mentioned in passing in a science class and set out to find out the truth of who she was. The next decade was full of tennuous back and forth communications and relations with the family as she struggled to understand what had happened and more importantly to help the family understand. This was a very interesting look at the science/medical community, the changes that have come about over the years in regards to patient privacy and rights, racism and more. Your heart aches for the things the family went through and yet at the same time can understand and appreciate what the medical community has done with the help of HeLa cells.

I read this as part of my church book club this past month. It's one of those that had never been on my radar and I don't know that I would have ever read or picked upon my own. But I'm so glad I 'found' it. I've thought about it and talked about it and re-thought about it over and over. I'm amazed at Skloot's dedication to the writing process and my mind still reels at some of the things that poor family has gone through. Word on the street is Oprah has bought the rights so we may see a theatrical version sometime in the future.

A House in the Woods
Author: Inga Moore
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-7
Published: 2011
Genre: Picture Book/Fiction
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: *****
Rating: G (nothing offensive)

Two pigs live happily in their little shelters in the woods but when they go out for a walk they come home to find Moose and Bear living in them. The invaders are so large that they inadvertently break the huts. The animals are all friends so there are no hard feelings but now they have nowhere to live.  They decide to hire the beavers to make one large house where they can all live together. 

The illustrations are soft and old-fashioned. The animals are charmingly anthropomorphic but thankfully Moore refrains from dressing them which adds to their subtle quirkiness. Cooperation, friendship and the process of creating a happy home are the understated messages delivered without a note of preachiness. Simply delightful! It's one that will stand up to multiple readings. I read it four or five times before I reluctantly handed it back over to the library and I've put it on my list of books to add to my permanent collection. 

How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous
Author: Georgia Bragg
Pages: 184
Age Range: 10-14
Published: 2011
Genre: Biography
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
Rating: PG (some violence, gruesome details)

Short biographies of 19 famous people, detailing particularly how they died. From King Tut to Einstein and several chronologically in between, there is a brief set up and then info on what caused them to die, with comments on what could have been different with more advanced medical knowledge and so forth.  There is also a final page (for each entrant) giving some additional information on various aspects of the story. King Tut has info about mummifcation, uses of mummies, Ceasar has info on autopsies, the calendar and words from his name, Darwin's has a list of various phobias, his experimental water treatments and more.

Written with some dark and snarky humor, perfect for a slightly older reader, particularly sarcastic and all-things-gross loving tween boys. This is a great resource for history, biography and random gruesome facts. Disgusting and interesting.

Tuesdays at the Castle
Author: Jessica Day George
Pages: 227
Age Range: 9-12
Published: 2011
Genre: Fantasy
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
Rating: PG

Tuesday at Castle Glower is Princess Celie's favorite day because that's when the castle makes new rooms, corridors, and passageways. Some ancient power enchants the castle and Celie's family has been its ruling family for the last 10 generations. But when her parents and older brother suddenly go missing, their caravan attacked and believed dead, the royal advisors and several uninvited guests take it upon themselves to decide who should rule next, disregarding the castle's opinions and eventually going so far as to 'kill' the castle itself. But Celie doesn't believe it's dead (nor are her parents) and it's up to her, her older sister and older brother (the regent crown prince) to find out the truth and save the day. The castle loves Celie and bends its creations to fit her wishes often and it's her love for and belief in the castle that brings the family success. 

George has been a favorite since I first read her Dragon Slippers. Some I've loved more than others but she has quite the knack for creating worlds and conjuring up old-fashioned fairy tale magic.  This is one of her best. Enchanting!

Author: Norton Juster
Illustrator: G. Brian Karas
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-7
Published: 2011
Genre: Picture Book/Realistic Fiction
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G (nothing offensive)

A boy moves into a new neighborhood, somewhere he doesn't want to be and where he doesn't know anybody. Convinced he'll never make friends his mother encourages him to walk around the block so he trudges down the street, stands on the corner and proceeds to shout "Neville" as loud as he can. A boy comes up behind him and offers to help. Together they shout for Neville and soon there's a whole crowd gathered. The kids all speculate on who Neville is and what he's like. When it's time to go home they promise they'll all come back tomorrow. The boy goes home feeling a bit lighter than before and his mom tucks him in wishing him "goodnight Neville."

This is a cute little story of friendship and making things work. Karas' illustrations are the perfect blend of childlike scrawl and whimsical sophistication. It would make a great read-aloud and kids will love figuring out who the mysterious Neville might be.

And speaking of Neville...
You're welcome!

The Name of the Star
Author: Maureen Johnson
Pages: 372
Age Range: 12 up
Published: 2011
Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery/Paranormal
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: *** 1/2
Rating: PG-13 (violence, underage drinking, some language and mild sexual references)

Rory is from deep Southern stock, a quirky family that lives in a swampy town outside of New Orleans, but finds herself transplanted to London for her senior year of High School. Not only does she have to adjust to new vernacular and cultures (boarding school and roommates, hockey, GCSEs, A levels) but the day she arrives a Jack the Ripper-esque murder is committed, sending the country into chaos. When he strikes again it’s clear a copycat is at work but none of the countless CCTV cameras have captured anything and there are no witnesses or leads. And then Rory begins to see people no one else can…

This was kind of a fun twist on the rampant paranormal genre, using plenty of facts and theories about 1880s London and the Jack the Ripper cases in a modern day school/romance/mystery story with a healthy dose of ghosts, intrigue and conspiracies. It wasn't one I would read again but it kept me entertained and I can see teens loving it.

That about covers it.  Now, any suggestions for what I should read next?

As far as NaNoWriMo goes, well it's pretty much a bust.  I'm still writing but it's pretty safe to say I'm not going to make the 50,000 mark anytime soon, definitely not by tomorrow. Current total: 11127

And that's the last you'll hear about it until it's getting published! (Well, okay, I can't actually promise that, but it will probably be months at least before I mention it again.)

Conclusion: Don't give up even if you don't reach your goals the way you'd hoped. Go read something. And happy late Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Happiness is...a great concert!

This week was one of the longest on record. It felt as least 3 weeks long, was full of work angst and busyness, long nights and early mornings, exhaustion and unaccomplisment. (yep, I just made that word up. Deal.) The weekend wasn't much better, with nary a moment to call my own, which is why you're only now getting a mention of Friday's fun. 

I convinced my roommate to join me for an amazing concert experience at the 9:30 Club. A and I had a delicious kabob meal and Crumbs cupcake excursion on our way to the club and arrived just after the opening act had started. Johnny Corndawg has a good, twangy, old country sound along with a potty mouth and penchant for dirty lyrics. As he finally finished his set the floor was steadily filling up. It's still a rather small venue but standing room only and much more packed than the other concerts I've seen lately. By the time Trampled by Turtles took the stage we were rubbing elbows (and in the case of our enthusiastic but somewhat spastic neighbor, bums) with the people around us and wishing we'd left the jackets in the car.

I'm afraid A wasn't nearly as impressed (with the venue or the performers) but I made her hang on until almost the bitter end (we left before the encores) and I enjoyed every minute of it. Their slow songs have an almost mournful quality to them filled with the haunting sounds you can only get from a mandolin or fiddle. But it's their fast stuff that sends me over the edge. Chest thumping bass, fingers and bows moving so fast they literally become nothing more than a blur sending so many notes into the air at once that your mind starts to spin. In a really good way. It's that indefinable bluegrass/rock sort of fusion that reaches across fanbases and just makes me darn happy.

I found myself cursing my camera though, which I was trying to hold steady above the pulsing crowd while all around me people were jumping up and down and holding their phones aloft getting much clearer pictures than I did. Dangit! So, no photos. But here's a video snippet for you to enjoy.

For any of you in the Utah area, they are headed your way on December 6th at The Depot. Go, I beg you. Go! And you can thank me later.

NaNoWriMo update:  Not a lot of writing is going on I'm afraid. Well, at least not the magnitude that I had hoped at any rate. The goal was 50,000 by the end of the month...I don't think I'll make that. But don't worry, I'm still plugging along!

Current word count: 7213

Monday, November 14, 2011

Happiness is...a weekend full of accomplishment and bits of unexpected pleasure.

It's been a busy couple of days.  Here's just a snippet of what filled my time:

  • A walk around the neighborhood enjoying the gorgeous weather and this view

  • Finishing this book (review to come)
  • A Twilight movie marathon with some super fun friends
  • Discovering that my shoes look perfectly at home among the fallen leaves

  • Completing a 5K with my roommates to help out a local high school
  • Making this sweet potato pie (and a pumpkin ice cream pie which tasted divine but was not beautiful) in honor of Pie Day* on Sunday

  • Listening to this album while getting started on making some Christmas gifts (details and updates of the projects to follow)
  • Breaking out the exercise books and sitting down to the keyboard after a long absence
  • Slowly working on the NaNoWriMo project....current word count 5863
All in all, a highly eventful weekend.  How was yours?

*My musically inclined friend, K, has made a yearly tradition out of Pie Day. Since by the end of Thanksgiving Dinner one's stomach is generally so full of turkey and stuffing and so forth that the requisite pumpkin pie is almost torture to squeeze in, and therefore is hardly enjoyed to its fullest, the pie is now given its own day. Generally falling on the Sunday before Thanksgiving one and all are invited to bring and/or sample the smorgasbord of pies without having previously gorged on a week's worth of food in the space of an hour or so. Last night's celebration was again a success filled with pumpkin, pecan, pear cranberry, mini key lime, chocolate, peanut butter, peach, and peanut butter raspberry with chocolate ganache, just to name a few! Delicious!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Happiness is...another musical adventure.

My friend K scored some free tickets to a show at Jammin' Java, a coffee house in Vienna so S and I accepted her invite and had our horizons broadened yet again.

First up was Lauren Shera, from California. She was basically a one-woman show, just her and her guitar (though she was joined by a few members of the other bands for her final number.) She has a lovely, rich voice with a classic quality to it that made me think of Judy Collins. I'm not a giant Collins fan or anything and by no means an expert but that was the comparison that kept coming to my mind, just sort of earthy and ethereal all at the same time. She was a little more mellow and I kept wishing I could just close my eyes and go to sleep...but in a good way!

Next up was theDavid Mayfield Parade, from Nashville, brother of Jessica Lea Mayfield and crazy man extraordinaire! What a character. His band consisted of a bearded drummer affectionately named (by us) Brother Brigham, an angsty little fiddle player who could bow like she was trying to set the thing on fire, a blond who rocked and swayed with her standing double bass as if it were a lover, a 50s throwback guitar player who would look at home standing next to Roy Orbison and then David himself who came somersaulting onto the stage and then spent half the rest of the time rolling around on it and jumping across it. The man never stood still. But boy can he play! They were a lot of fun to watch, starting out with a traditional sort of old time bluegrass and then segueing directly into rock segments with screeching electric guitars and thumping bass (though this was the standup one, not the guitar as you might imagine). Then there was the acapella gospel song (with some mad whistling skills) and the lovely lullaby accompanied by a soft guitar. And of course the standup comedy routine running continuously throughout-hilarious! I think these guys were my favorite. Their skills not to be denied, but they could win on sheer showmanship alone.

(this video is a little long but watch through the end --or fast forward a bit if you must-- to get a taste of the their style and craziness, though the bass player, I'm sad to say, is MIA)

Finally we finished up the night with Matthew and the Atlas (previous openers for Mumford and Sons which was where K first heard about them). They hail from England and though he looked like he would have fit in nicely on the back of a pickup truck in Oklahoma (his accent would be a dead giveaway however) the rest of his band (the bespectacled banjo player in the skinny jeans, the Bob Marley-ish hat wearing accordion player, the yummy drummer and the piano playing chica) all screamed "British!" He's got this incredibly smokey, gravelly voice (their website calls it 'bruised and raw') that just makes you want to melt. Their sound together was folksy with nods to both America and the British Isles and while I really enjoyed it I also sort of wished he'd just do something solo and acoustic so you could really swim in his sound alone. 

(this video is much more 'him' with the rest of the band more subtle in the background...love it!!!)

It was after 11 before they all convened on stage for a couple of group numbers to wrap up the night. Such a great evening in a tiny little venue that made it possible to feel a part of the music. (At one point the DMP ventured into the audience and two of them sat on the row right next to S...I could have literally reached out and licked his guitar, and could smell their sweat they were that close!) It makes for a fun experience, something you definitely don't get with larger names and larger spaces. I highly recommend you check them all out!

On another note, I'm still slowly plodding away on the NaNoWriMo project. I broke my rule and went back and did a bit of deleting and editing so my numbers don't quite reflect the time I've spent but I'm pleased with what I've done so far (and vow not to edit again until the whole thing is done!)
Total word count-4219

How has your week been?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Happiness is...a day trip!

A friend and I decided to venture down to Charlottesville today to enjoy the gorgeously crisp fall weather and get out of the city for a bit. 

We started with an essential road trip stop at Sonic for the breakfast of champions...

a pumpkin pie shake and a cherry lime-aid!  Mmmmm, perfection!

Then we drove the rest of the way and had some delicious lunch at Miche Tavern near Monticello (which we skipped today since we'd both been there already, but such an amazing place! If you've never been, add it to your bucket list, right now!) By the way, pewter dishes make me happy!

Next it was into the town of Charlottesville itself where we spent several hours wandering through the pedestrian shopping district indulging in boutiques and kitschy shops of all kinds. (I bought some fun Washi tape for myself and some Christmas presents to even things out.) And we soaked up some of the fun atmosphere and charm of the town.

We ran into the Elders (Mormon missionaries) who were adding some graffiti to a fun chalk wall installation piece and chatted with them for a few minutes in the sunshine.

And then we made our way to UVA campus where we were late enough to have missed all the tours but saw the outside of the rotunda,

watched the school's Quidditch team play a bit of a game and visited Edgar Allan Poe's preserved dorm room

and then had some delicious dumplings and spent some time chilling in a coffee shop sipping on some hazelnut steamers and reading poetry.  

Now I'm finishing it up by blogging, of course and shortly I'll be crafting with my Washi tape while watching Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson (the blogging is interrupted by much laughter) in Shanghai Noon.  (Holy crap! The vultures are eating my head!!!)  It's been a truly lovely day!

On the writing front, I'm off to a super slow start but I have gotten an outline down and some character sketches ready to go. I'm hoping next week will be much more impressive in the word count department.

How did you spend your Saturday?

NaNoWriMo word count: 2536

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Happiness is...a new month!

Happy All Saints Day! Hopefully you all had wonderful Halloween celebrations this past weekend. I celebrated with the annual viewing of Disney’sLegend of Sleepy Hollow (the cartoon version narrated by Bing Crosby, it’s not Halloween in my world until that happens), as well as The Birds (which I will forever find creepy) and The Watcher in the Woods (also still surprisingly rich in the heebee jeebee factor, even though I’m no longer 12!) I also had some of the requisite candy, gave treats to some costumed toddlers, ate fresh pumpkin soup and pumpkin cookies and wore a glow-in-the-dark t-shirt (we don’t go for dressing up much here at the library.)

With the end of the month/beginning of a new one I also figured I could share a few of my favorite reads for October, especially since I’ll be participating in NaNoWriMo this month and will not be doing nearly as much reading as writing (I hope!) so it may be awhile before I do another full-fledged entry like this.

So here, in no particular order, are some of last month’s greatest hits:

Lola and the Boy Next Door
Author: Stephanie Perkins
Pages: 338
Age Range: 13-16
Published: 2011
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ****
Rating: PG-13

I’ve read two of Perkins’ books so far and loved them both! She has a great way of capturing the ache and elation of teenagerhood and first loves in particular. She does a nice job of balancing the out of control emotions, hormones and perspectives with reality to create a story that is both highly enjoyable and believable.

In this one Lola is trying to prove to her parents that Max (her much older, rocker boyfriend) is ‘the one’ but when her first crush, Cricket, moves back in next door her world and all her relationships are thrown into disarray. Eventually she learns how to be true to herself (and even how to figure out who that self is) and while not all of her choices are good there are realistic consequences and growth from them all. Her parents are two gay men, her birth mother is a highly unstable drunk, there are some mentions of sex and drug use as well as some strong language (complements mostly of Max) but none of it is in any way offensive. Anna and Etienne from Perkins’ first novel also make an appearance, which is kind of fun. Highly recommended for teens or anyone wanting to relive the roller coaster ride of a first love.

A Zeal of Zebras: An Alphabet of Collective Nouns
Author: Woop Studios
Pages: 32
Age Range: 3-8
Published: 2011
Genre: Non-fiction
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G

Collective nouns are so much fun and this book is a perfect introduction to them. Each page highlights the animal and its group name and gives a brief paragraph of information about it (habits, habitats, conservation efforts and such) and beautifully illustrating the animal. Woop Studios is a collection of artists who've combined their efforts to celebrate their love of graphic design, words and images. It's a terrific collaboration and is a great addition to the alphabet book collection for slightly older readers or kids who are ready for a bit more depth and some information but without the attention span for a full-fledged non-fiction book.

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: The Extraordinary True Story of Shackelton and the Endurance
Author: Jennifer Armstrong
Pages: 134
Age Range: 9-14
Published: 1998
Genre: Non-fiction
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ****
Rating: PG

In getting ready for my trip down south in a couple of months I wanted to read up on the area and some of the fascinating stories surrounding its discovery and exploration. I have a nice big list and this was the first one up. Armstrong gives a tiny bit of background on Shackelton himself and the age of exploration so the reader has a bit of context but the crux of the book is the men's adventures down to Antarctica, being stranded first on the land but then again on their ship (and then on land again) as they encounter various storms and setbacks on their quest to cross the continent. There's a mixture of humor and human interest as she relates the things they do to keep themselves entertained but there's also some intense imagery as they fight for survival. (***Spoiler alert!! There were several instances of tears as they had to kill off the dogs rather than let them starve to death.)

There are black and white photos taken during the expedition that complement the text and add some additional humanity and depth to the narration. This is a really well done overview of the events of the ill-fated expedition, enough to give you a working knowledge but also enough to whet your appetite for more.

Author: Anne Ursu
Pages: 312
Age Range: 8-12
Published: 2011
Genre: Fantasy
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: *****
Rating: PG

Hazel is struggling to adjust to her new school and maintain friendship with her neighbor Jack but things are changing between them. And when he suddenly disappears, only Hazel believes that something might be wrong. Her worst fears are confirmed when another boy mentions he might have seen Jack getting into a frozen sled with an icy queen. She musters up her courage and ventures into the magical, mysterious world beyond the forest to rescue him.

This is my favorite kind of story. Full of emotion and deep, loyal friendships, reality coated in healthy doses of magic (the kind that make you believe the world truly is magical at some levels if you just happened to be in the right place at the right time), subtle tributes to all the best books and a realistically happy resolution. If you love fairy tales then you must read this, I guarantee you'll be enchanted!

I also listened to Dracula in honor of Halloween. It was pretty spooky. I think the narration helped though. I don’t know if it would have gripped me in the same way if I’d been reading it on my own. But I can definitely see where the hype came in and why the vampire culture has lived on the way it has.

GoodReads has a sidebar where you can set goals for the number of books to read this year and I mockingly set mine for 400 back in February or so. I’ve since surpassed that (hooray!) and am working on getting up to 600 by December 31st. (Keep in mind that about half of those have been picture books so it’s not quite as impressive as it sounds, but still!) I’m currently up to about 530. I think I may have to do another great picture book push to meet the goal. I haven’t read a picture book for awhile that has really impressed me so let’s see if I can remedy that.

My October writing fifteen minutes a day (WFMAD) campaign has been a success. I didn’t make huge amounts of headway but I definitely did a better job of making time for writing in my day and got over a few hurdles that had been bugging me concerning the flow of my story. I’m going to let it all stew for a bit while I throw myself into the madness of writing a novel in one month. I haven’t registered to do any of it officially so I won’t have access to all the official guidelines and encouragement and so forth on the website and everything but basically I’m just going to see how much I can get done. I’ve had this idea simmering in my brain for awhile and I think my other WIP (work in progress) will benefit from being able to tackle it again fresh in a month or so. I haven’t done any actual writing on this new project but I did mention earlier that it will be a fleshed-out re-telling of a fairy tale. I’ve read various other versions of the story in preparation but we’ll start at the beginning with a clean sheet of paper this afternoon when I sit down to write. I’m not going to do any editing or re-writing at this point, just get as many words down and as much of the story as possible (the official goal is 50,000...so that’s what I’m shooting for for now.)

The invitation still stands to have anyone interested join me! :)